If the leaders of 47 countries meeting in Washington this week to discuss nuclear security get it right, they may improve the security of nuclear weapons and materials. That would strengthen the non-proliferation regime, contribute additional momentum on disarmament, and make nuclear power safer to use in the battle against climate change. If they get it wrong, this will be a major missed opportunity, and the entire international agenda to manage a growing range of nuclear dangers may be undermined.
This summit matters for five main reasons. First, the consensus opinion among experts is that terrorists, including but not limited to al-Qa'ida, are seeking nuclear weapons capabilities, with the intention of using them if ever they were able. This is the judgement of many of the intelligence agencies and independent national and international commissions to have addressed the issue.
Second, accessing nuclear bomb related materials is not as hard as it should be. There are currently weaknesses in nuclear security arrangements in many countries around the world and there is a well-documented black market in fissile materials. The International Atomic Energy Agency has reported at least 15 incidents of security authorities recovering stolen highly-enriched uranium since the early 1990s, and this is thought to be the tip of a much larger iceberg.
Third, a massive projected increase in the use of low carbon nuclear power, partly in response to climate change, will make securing the world's stockpile of nuclear materials even harder over the next two decades than it is today. If this isn't handled carefully, the result will be a major increase in proliferation risks.
Fourth, the consequences of a major nuclear security incident, such as a terrorist nuclear bomb detonation in a major city, would almost certainly be catastrophic and global. Any attacked country would respond with massive military force at whatever target thought responsible, and a cycle of international conflict, instability and likely economic chaos would follow. Perhaps just as significant, this scenario would also cause a backlash against all things nuclear, undermining the political viability of civil nuclear energy programmes around the world and destroying many national plans to achieve climate change related reductions in carbon outputs.
Fifth, without improved nuclear security there is unlikely to be sustained momentum for nuclear disarmament, especially to very low numbers of weapons. This is because in today's world the threat is not only that of being attacked by another state, but of being attacked by a nuclear armed terrorist group, possibly acting for another state. In such circumstances, effective nuclear material accounting, monitoring and security arrangements are essential measures for building confidence that no one state will engineer a security failure to facilitate a nuclear terrorist attack on another.
The importance and urgency of this situation ought to be obvious but progress on securing nuclear materials is not coming fast enough and some countries view this as a purely Western concern, and not as an issue of global significance.
There are still weapons and fissile materials around the world, including materials in poorly protected civilian research reactors, that need to be made more secure than they are today. President Obama is right to show leadership on the issue, but to be worthwhile the Washington Summit needs to produce some concrete results.
Key criterion for success at the summit is a communiqué that demonstrates wider international ownership of the issue, and concrete commitments on further action. Promises to fund more nuclear security work, through the UNSC Resolution 1540 fund, would be a big help, as would a commitment to build regional nuclear security training centres around the world to help grow capacity and embed a security culture in all countries.
We also need to see specific national commitments to consolidate nuclear weapons and materials in fewer locations and to tighten security arrangements at each. Lastly, we need to see a commitment to streamlining the international institutional architecture that is supposed to be addressing this issue. There are at least 10 initiatives, forums, or UN resolutions related to nuclear security. They overlap and many of them are ineffective. Beginning a process to construct a UN Framework Convention on Nuclear Security that encompasses but co-ordinates all existing activity would be a major step forward in this area. It would also help to universalise the effort.
We need real action, not just words, out of the Washington summit. Without it, we miss a major opportunity to make the world a safer place.
D r Ian Kearns is Research Director of the British-American Security Information Council (BASIC) and a Specialist Adviser to the joint House of Commons/House of Lords Committee on National Security Strategy